But if you were following Helton’s status this week, his prospects were either uncertain or incredibly dim, depending on whom you asked at Sports Illustrated.
Adam Maya, a Trojans football “insider” for SI’s USC-based site, reported Sunday that Helton’s firing was imminent, citing multiple anonymous sources. “Clay Helton has coached his last game for the Trojans,” Maya wrote.
But hours later, Pat Forde, an SI senior staff writer, debunked that report, tweeting that multiple unnamed sources told him that “no decision has been made and it is still possible — maybe even likely — that Helton keeps his job."
Maya wrote that he had been relying on the word of multiple people who had been reliable in previous stories, and that those people “confused certain actions by Bohn and their superiors at USC” to mean Helton was set to be terminated.
“As a result, a coaching change was inaccurately characterized to me as being a formality rather than, as was later explained to me, conditional,” Maya wrote. “If I had known the latter, I would not have filed my report in such terms.”
He said his reporting “inexcusably missed the mark.”
Representatives from the Maven, the magazine’s operator, did not respond to a request for comment, and neither did Ryan Hunt, its managing editor. Neither Forde nor Maya responded to requests for comment.
The mixed signals come in the same year of major management and staffing reorganizations at SI, once the standard-bearer of American sports journalism. Acquired by marketing firm Authentic Brands Group in the spring, SI’s editorial operations were almost immediately handed over to Seattle-based media start-up Maven.
In October, the publication laid off nearly half its editorial staff and launched a tiered model for content. Maven would hire what it calls “insiders” to cover individual teams and allow them to publish on spinoff websites that carried the SI masthead. SI held on to a number of higher-profile writers, including Chris Ballard and Tom Verducci, and added Forde, an award-winning former Yahoo Sports columnist.
Maya’s story and the subsequent apology were published on SI’s USC-specific website. Forde’s reporting was published on Sports Illustrated’s main website.
The internal conflict at SI over Helton’s fate offered a peek both at the process of rapid news production and a publication in turmoil, said Galen Clavio, head of the sports media program at Indiana University.
Maven executives have suggested using this tiered system of “insiders” and reporters is a way to reinvest in resource-rich long-form and investigative journalism, the projects that made SI indispensable to generations of sports fans. Team “insiders” can take care of smaller daily news stories to give magazine writers the time and financial underwriting to pursue more ambitious articles.
But in doing so, Clavio said, the company is bestowing its recognizable and respected SI brand to two very different workforces: newly hired “insiders” and industry veterans such as Forde.
“I don’t think you can compare someone like Pat Forde with one of these Mavens,” Clavio said. “They do such different things that the only commonality between them is the brand Sports Illustrated.
“What the Maven [writers] do, they’re just meant to churn out content that generates ad revenue that helps the bottom line. They’re really not meant to be breaking news.”
But experts say they don’t expect SI or the Maven’s reputation to suffer a significant blow over the contradictory articles. While other journalists might wag their fingers in disapproval, someone from SI in the end is going to be right, and the online audience will move on.
For a reporter such as Maya, who does not have a significant following, breaking a story — even if it’s wrong — may not have many negative consequences, especially if it produces substantial online attention.
“Maybe what we’re seeing here is the last whip of the dragon’s tail in the struggle between legacy journalism and content journalism at SI,” said Bob Lipsyte, a former New York Times sportswriter and retired ESPN ombudsman. “And this content journalism isn’t worth much. It’s speculative, it’s not thoroughly reported, but it keeps the fire going.”
Added Clavio: “It ends up being this weird thing where it’s a black eye for the SI brand and this reporter. I just don’t know if that black eye sustains or if it’s a bump in the road in the age of social media. Even if they get some stuff wrong, it takes getting something right one time for all this damage to be reversed.”